Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to show his regime is in control have taken a hit with the defection of Prime Minister Dr Riad Hijab. Of the growing list of political and military figures to have switched allegiance to the opposition Free Syrian Army rebels, none has been as high-profile. But while Assad has suffered a public relations defeat, there is no sign that he will end the bloodshed against his own people. With the nation's growing ethnic and sectarian instability threatening to spill across borders, convincing the leader to go into exile has become a matter of urgency.
Assad has vowed to fight to the end. Neither his forces, with their superior Russian-made arms, nor the rebels, backed by regional and Western powers, seem to have the upper hand. Each time the rebels advance into a major city, they are pushed back. But their support outside big population areas is so great that they cannot be dislodged.
UN peace envoy Kofi Annan has quit his post, his efforts foiled by Assad's obstinacy and the refusal of the leader's chief ally, Russia, to use its clout to broker a deal. The failed five-month mission gave the Syrian regime more time to wage war, raising a death toll that is fast approaching 20,000, making reconciliation impossible. Jihadists are using the chaos to try to get a foothold, and some outsiders believe they have infiltrated the rebels, muddying already turbulent waters. The possibility of a national crisis going regional is high and growing.
A bomb blast in the state television headquarters in Damascus on Monday and the killing last month of four of Assad's top security officials, his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat among them, showed further cracks at the heart of the regime. The defection of Hijab, made prime minister to garner support from Sunni Muslims, could deepen sectarian splits. Syria is fast becoming a powder keg that could explode with frightening consequences. Governments with vested interests, unable to agree on a course of action through the UN, have to come together to plan a post-Assad strategy and convince the leader that it is time to go.